As published here on InStyle UK.
Today I’m taking a break from my usual beauty blasts to talk about my experiences with panic attacks. It seems like a good time, it being World Mental Health Day, and also because I’m poorly with a cold, which always makes me feel frayed at the edges mentally; illness is one of my personal panic triggers.
I’ll start at the beginning of my experience with panic and all its lovely phobic offshoots. I was young – around 13. My aunt had died of cancer the previous year, and I was still smarting from the experience of having seen someone I loved die – and at such close quarters (she spent the last few months of her life in my bedroom as she’d loved our family house so much, while I slept across the hall in my sister’s room).
I was alone, that first time I panicked. It was night time, and I was at home. My Dad owns a restaurant, so was at work, and my Mum was at the gym. I don’t remember the bit right before, just the sense of being pulled into a vortex, the urge to run – but where? – to hide – from what? – to scream – but why? It was intense, and after some tears and a desperate attempt to soothe my rattled nerves, I fell asleep, thinking it was a blip.
I didn’t know then that panic lays a track down in your mind, and without finding a way to face and unpick the fear, every subsequent, inevitable attack pushes deeper into that groove, cementing a panic response to certain triggers. Had I known, I’d have looked at it more deeply, perhaps sought proper help to unearth the root causes, to cut the cords that would wind their way through my mind like pernicious weeds and strangle so many of my endeavours.
That’s where things really get quite annoying. I didn’t do that. I saw a counsellor who advised lavender and a little chat with friends, but who never worked her way to those triggers that would blight my daily life. After that, being alone, illness, night time, and a hundred other things all told my irritatingly clever subconscious that perhaps something bad was about to happen. That maybe I should feel on edge, prepare for that famous fight or flight, get ready to respond.
Years – and much time looking at the perfect storm that gave rise to my panic attacks, both on my own and with a psychoanalyst – have taught me that mental health needs tending to as much as physical health and that, just as you might see an optician when you are struggling to make out the text on your computer screen, you sometimes need help to see what’s really going on mentally. I did, and it really made an enormous difference to how I dealt with my propensity to panic.
That said, I am well aware that help from a professional is costly and sometimes out of reach, so I’ve jotted down some things I found valuable that are worth perhaps trying if you are struggling with your mental health and can’t for whatever reason access help.
Talk or write. If you have a family member or friend who’s understanding and willing to listen without casting judgement your way, by all means confide in them. Whether you do or you don’t, try keeping a diary. Words spilled onto a page have a way of releasing pressure, and of ordering thoughts so they become more logical.
Become part of a community. Similarly, not feeling alone does great things to the mind. Journalist Bryony Gordon started the brilliant Mental Health Mates events, while Clare Eastham blogs about her experiences with mental health on her blog All Mad Here, as do I on my blog. Mind is also a valuable resource.
Move. The mind and body are inextricably connected, and a healthy amount of exercise ups endorphins and helps to lift mood. I’m lucky to have a dog, which means I can’t get away with staying indoors all the time – even when it’s my instinct to. Also, if you’re unsure of whether you’re generally getting enough movement in, I’d recommend a Fitbit – mine vibrates to tell me it’s made the recommended daily 10,000 steps.
And sleep. This is another thing the Fitbit has been good for. It monitors sleep, and I’ve found that on days when I haven’t had a good amount, I definitely feel more on edge. It can be a bit of a tricky one, getting enough, as sometimes poor mental health inhibits sleep. Here, the usual good advice can be of use: a gentle walk in the evening, a bath to trigger the dip in temperature that ushers in sleep, and steering clear of lights emitted by screens will all help.
Also remember to eat well. By this, I don’t mean ‘clean’, I just mean make the mainstay of your diet as much about real food that will nourish your mind and body as possible. The brain on sugar and junk food is not a happy place – they trigger insulin spikes and physical sensations that don’t help the mind out in the slightest. Also, the gut and mind have a relationship, and the gut is not a fan of sugar as a whole, so just keep an eye on your intake. And, yes, that includes chocolate and alcohol.
And try some pampering. Having a massage obviously won’t solve any deep-seated mental health issues – but it will potentially offer a respite – and remind you that you are a person worthy of love, attention and care. Send that message inwards as often as you can. You are valuable, you can overcome mental illness, and time along with a helping hand can heal a surprisingly number of things; if I can travel to far-flung lands and commute without panicking, you sure as hell can achieve whatever you set your mind to, even if your mind is sometimes the thing that is poorly, too.